SHAHAM PLUS BRAHMS

Friday, May 19, 2017 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, May 20, 2017 at 8:00 PM 
Sunday, May 21, 2017 at 2:30 PM

 

Schumann:

Overture to Genoveva, Opus 81

[9]

Prokofiev:

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Opus 63

I. Allegro moderato

II. Andante assai

III. Allegro, ben marcato

[26]

 

                   INTERMISSION

 

Brahms:

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

I. Un poco sostenuto—Allegro

II. Andante sostenuto

III. Un poco allegretto e grazioso

IV. Adagio—Più andante—Allegro non troppo, ma con brio

[45]

 

Program Notes

Overture to Genoveva, Opus 81

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann first dreamed of composing an opera as a youth. When he was 20, Shakespeare’s Hamlet enticed him. Over the next 25 years, he looked at subjects including Till Eulenspiegel, the legendary German ne’er-do-well who inspired a symphonic poem by Richard Strauss, and the Nordic sagas that Richard Wagner transformed into The Ring of the Nibelung. One story finally jelled for him: the medieval tale of Genevieve of Brabant, a noblewoman falsely accused of being unfaithful to her husband while he’s off at war.

In the legend, Genevieve’s innocence comes to light only after she’s convicted and beheaded. Schumann, who crafted his own libretto, gave the story a happy ending: The truth emerges just in time to halt the execution, and Genevieve—or Genoveva in the opera’s German—reunites with her husband. The overture has earned a life of its own in the concert hall, where it serves as a mini-symphonic poem embodying turbulence, heroism and celebration.

Even though the overture begins pianissimo, the unsettled harmony and plaintive sound of the woodwinds’ first chord signals that intense feelings are at play. The violins’ entrance stabs into that chord, and the violins soon play a dark-hued, soulful melody that has its roots in the opera, where transformations of it help express a variety of emotions. Here, it sets a scene of brooding and anxiety, and the strings’ sinuous, restless lines intensify that. The music suddenly accelerates as the violins and cellos spring into a sweeping theme that lets the tension boil over. As the turbulence takes hold, the strings churn and the winds call out plaintively. Then the French horns step in, sounding hale and hearty, and the music grows harmonious. But the turmoil resumes, and the mournful violin theme from the opening appears in a new, fiery guise. When the French horns’ exuberant theme returns, its optimism wins out, and the overture ends with a burst of exultation.

Schumann’s music returns in force in September, when the Houston Symphony combines his First and Second Symphonies in one program.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

 

Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Opus 63

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)

Sergei Prokofiev made his name with music that was lean, dynamic and even aggressive. His youthful works embraced the dissonance and spikiness that rocked the early 20th-century music world, and when he wasn’t detonating sonic bombshells, his music’s wryness gave it a smart-aleck streak. By his 40s, though, he yearned for what he called a “new simplicity.” Melody gained prominence in his works, and the evolution colored his Violin Concerto No. 2—especially its lyrical Andante.

The first movement is a contest between melody and mischief. The violin spins out a quiet theme that at first coils within the range of a few notes, then pushes higher. But as soon as part of the string section joins in, a sputtering outburst from the solo violin and the rest of the strings interrupts. The low strings launch into the theme, and the solo violin follows, but there’s another break: The violin and winds take off on a scurrying new theme, leaving the opening melody just to murmur in the background. When the bustle settles down, the violin sings out a warm, sinuous melody that brings the concerto a new glow.

The violin again sprints into action, and this salvo is the boldest and most impetuous yet. Even the opening theme takes a new form, staccato and faster-moving. But the crossplay of moods continues, and the lyrical theme asserts itself, too. By the end of the movement, the opening theme’s quiet original form has won out.

The second movement puts hijinks aside. It begins like an idyllic serenade, with a peaceful violin tune floating above harmonious plucked strings. The violin soon leads the way in a gentle waltz, and the music takes a mysterious turn when the violin murmurs in the stratosphere above a hushed transformation of the waltz. But the winds brighten the mood, stepping forth with a flowing tune the violin ardently takes over. Lyricism returns, and a surge of passion briefly seizes the violin and orchestra before the movement closes serenely.

A lusty violin theme launches the finale. The music takes a form whose tradition goes back to Mozart: the rondo, in which the main theme reappears regularly amid interludes that offer contrast. Here, those contrasts include a waltz led by the low strings and a fiery violin solo that uses the instrument’s lowest, gutsiest-sounding string. And the soloist caps it all with a dash to the end.

The Houston Symphony puts the violin in the spotlight again in September, when it premieres a concert by new Composer-in-Residence Jimmy Lopez.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, percussion and strings

 

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Mozart wrote his first symphony as a child. Beethoven created his first in his late 20s. And Johannes Brahms? He didn’t unveil his Symphony No. 1 until he was 44. Chalk it up to his unflinching self-criticism. Brahms sketched out three movements of a symphony when he was 24, but he was so unsure of his skills at composing for orchestra that he turned the material into his Piano Concerto No. 1, where the keyboard shared the spotlight. Five years later, Brahms wrote the bulk of what eventually became the first movement of his Symphony No. 1. Then he devoted more than a decade to other works before he finally resumed the symphony in 1874. And his labors still took three years.

Brahms’ diligence paid off. The symphony’s progress from turbulence to triumph has never stopped resonating with listeners.

The symphony starts with an onslaught: The kettledrum pounds, much of the orchestra pours out sound, and the violins and cellos surmount all of that, pushing upward for an octave. When the flood subsides, the music quiets, but its tension remains. The orchestra repeats the opening salvo, which abruptly breaks off: A plaintive oboe solo brings the symphony a more personal scale, and the music falls silent. Within moments, an orchestral thunderclap reignites the tension, and the violins launch into the surging, tempestuous theme that opens the Allegro.

As the rest of the orchestra joins in, the agitation intensifies. The music grows bold, rugged, even brusque. That eases enough for the winds to inject a bit of warmth. The violins respond with an arching, graceful transformation of their Allegro theme, and the oboes and clarinets exchange short but ardent phrases. But the strings’ jabs bring back the tumult, and the orchestra lashes out with more of a wallop than ever. A reminiscence of the very beginning leads to a close that’s quiet, but not necessarily peaceful.

The slow movement’s richness and melody offer an antidote to the tumult. The strings’ first phrases suggest a hymn’s breadth and sturdiness. Then the oboe sings out, and lyricism flows more freely. The violins soar, and passions wells up. Then the solo violin takes the lead, and its gleam and sweetness help the movement end serenely.

The contentment carries over into the third movement. It begins with a breezy clarinet solo, and that gives way to tunes that are more full-throated and hearty. But unrest returns with the finale, which opens with snippets of brooding melody and biting, plucked strings. The low strings unleash a sonic groundswell, and that generates an explosion. Then the strings begin to shimmer, and a broad, noble theme wells up from the French horns. The symphony has reached its turning point.

The trombones, which have been silent until now, intone a stately theme of their own. After a dramatic pause, the violins step forth with a sonorous, striding tune that exudes confidence, and Brahms builds the finale’s noble themes into a blaze of jubilation.

The Houston Symphony will play his tempestuous Piano Concerto No. 1 in January.

The Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings

 

 

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